By HUGH EAKIN
April 10, 2004
In the varied explanations for the 9/11 attacks and the
rise in terrorism, two themes keep recurring.
April 10, 2004
By HUGH EAKIN
In the varied explanations for the 9/11 attacks and the
rise in terrorism, two themes keep recurring. One is that
Islamic culture itself is to blame, leading to a clash of
civilizations, or, as more nuanced versions have it, a
struggle between secular-minded and fundamentalist Muslims
that has resulted in extremist violence against the West.
The second is that terrorism is a feature of the
post-cold-war landscape, belonging to an era in which
international relations are no longer defined by the
titanic confrontation between two superpowers, the United
States and the Soviet Union.
But in the eyes of Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born political
scientist and cultural anthropologist at Columbia
University, both those assumptions are wrong. Not only does
he argue that terrorism does not necessarily have anything
to do with Islamic culture; he also insists that the spread
of terror as a tactic is largely an outgrowth of American
cold war foreign policy. After Vietnam, he argues, the
American government shifted from a strategy of direct
intervention in the fight against global Communism to one
of supporting new forms of low-level insurgency by private
"In practice," Mr. Mamdani has written, "it translated into
a United States decision to harness, or even to cultivate,
terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered
pro-Soviet." The real culprit of 9/11, in other words, is
not Islam but rather non-state violence in general, during
the final stages of the stand-off with the Soviet Union.
Using third and fourth parties, the C.I.A. supported
terrorist and proto-terrorist movements in Indochina, Latin
America, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan, he argues in
his new book, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold
War and the Roots of Terror" (Pantheon).
"The real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of
arms and money," he writes, " but the privatization of
information about how to produce and spread violence - the
formation of private militias - capable of creating
terror." The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist, he notes
dryly, is Osama bin Laden.
Other recent accounts have examined the ways in which
American support for the mujahedeen in the 1980's helped
pave the way for Islamic terrorism in the 90's. But Mr.
Mamdani posits a new - and far more controversial - thesis
by connecting the violent strain of Islam to a broader
"Mahmood's argument is that terrorism is a defining
characteristic of the last phase of the cold war," said
Robert Meister, a political scientist at the University of
California, Santa Cruz, who has followed Mr. Mamdani's work
for three decades. He added, "It was a characteristic that
took on, especially in Africa, a logic of its own, a logic
that eventually broke free of the geopolitics that started
In a telephone interview from Kampala, Uganda, where he has
a second home, Mr. Mamdani explained, "What I have in mind
is the policy of proxy war." As his book recounts, the
African continent became a major front in the cold war
after the rapid decolonization of the 1960's and 70's gave
rise to a number of nationalist movements influenced by
For the United States, caught in the wave of antiwar
feeling set off by Vietnam, the only way to roll back this
process was to give indirect support to violent new
right-wing groups. Mr. Mamdani asserts, for example, that
the United States policy of constructive engagement with
apartheid in South Africa helped sustain two
proto-terrorist organizations - Unita, the National Union
for the Total Independence of Angola, and Renamo, the
Mozambican National Resistance - that were armed and
trained by the South African Defense Force. Renamo became
what Mr. Mamdani calls Africa's "first genuine terrorist
movement," a privatized outfit that unleashed random
violence against civilians without any serious pretension
to national power.
In the 1980's, Mr. Mamdani argues, the American use of
proxy forces became increasingly overt. "What had begun as
a very pragmatic policy under Kissinger was ideologized by
the Reagan administration in highly religious terms, as a
fight to the finish against the `Evil Empire,' " Mr.
Drawing on the same strategy used in Africa, the United
States supported the Contras in Nicaragua and then created,
on a grand scale, a pan-Islamic front to fight the Soviets
in Afghanistan. Whereas other Islamic movements, like the
Iranian revolution, had clear nationalist aims, the Afghan
jihad, Mr. Mamdani suggests, was created by the United
States as a privatized and ideologically stateless
A result, he writes, was "the formation of an international
cadre of uprooted individuals who broke ties with family
and country of origin to join clandestine networks with a
clearly defined enemy."
According to Mr. Mamdani, the strategy of proxy warfare
continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as
the United States looked for new ways to sponsor
low-intensity conflicts against militantly nationalist
regimes. In a final section on the current conflict in
Iraq, the book suggests that it, much more than the end of
the cold war in 1989, closed the "era of proxy warfare" in
American foreign policy.
Scholars familiar with the book say that Mr. Mamdani's
account of the late cold war, and its emphasis on Africa in
particular, is likely to be disdained by specialists on
Islam, some of whom are criticized by name in the opening
"The book is most original in the skewer it puts through
what Mamdani calls the `culture talk' that has substituted
for serious explanations of political Islam," said Timothy
Mitchell, a political scientist at New York University.
"Scholar-pundits like Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami tell us
that the culture of Muslims or Arabs cannot cope with
modernity. Mamdani shows us that the origins of political
Islam are themselves modern, and, in fact, largely
But John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University expert on
political Islam, warns that an attempt to explain Islamic
terrorism through international politics alone risks the
same flaw as the cultural approach. "To say it's simply
politics, without taking into account religion, misses the
causes behind a lot of these conflicts, just as the reverse
misses them," he said. "It's religion and politics
Mr. Mamdani's unusual perspective is partly a result of his
own experience in Africa. A third-generation East African
of Indian descent, Mr. Mamdani, 57, grew up in the final
years of colonial Uganda.
"Idi Amin was my first experience of terror, and I
understood how a demagogue could ride a wave of popular
resentment," Mr. Mamdani said, recalling how he and other
Asians were expelled in 1972.
After completing a Ph.D. at Harvard in 1974, he took a
faculty position at the University of Dar es Salaam in
Tanzania, at the time a hotbed of radical African politics.
Among his colleagues were the future Ugandan president
Yoweri Museveni, as well as Laurent Kabila, the future
president of Congo, and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, leader of
one of the revolutionary factions against Kabila.
Mr. Mamdani returned to Uganda during the civil war that
ousted Amin and took a deanship at the national university
in Kampala, where he became a leading expert on agrarian
administration and its relation to post-colonial unrest.
Often outspoken against the Ugandan government, he was
exiled a second time in 1985, during another civil war. In
the late 1980's, he led a Ugandan commission on local
government; later he taught at the University of Cape Town
in South Africa during the tumultuous early years after
His previous book, "When Victims Become Killers:
Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda," sought
to overturn the view that those atrocities had deep tribal
roots. Much of the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic rivalry, he argued,
could be traced to the colonial period. (The Belgians had
introduced and enforced Hutu and Tutsi racial identities in
a segregated social system.)
Mr. Mamdani, who now directs Columbia's Institute for
African Studies, lives in New York and Kampala with his
wife, the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, and their son.
To understand political Islam, Mr. Mamdani says Africa's
experience is instructive. "Africa is seen as exceptional,
as not even part of the rest of the world," he said. "But
on the contrary, it's an illuminating vantage point."